Streetcars & Waterfronts: The F Market & Wharves Line

August 20, 2010 17 comments Open printer friendly version of this article Print Article

With a little creativity, San Francisco's F Market & Wharves historic streetcar line is the most successful vintage rail line ever opened, attracting over 20,000 riders a day. The restoration of the F-Line led to a billion dollars of redevelopment along the wharves and waterfront and has been so successful in re-energizing the economy that the city is reviewing plans to double the length of the route in order to fully redevelop the historically commercial waterfront. With developments like the Cannery and Ghirardelli square credited to historic transit lines, no one was prepared for the explosion of business and revenue that resulted from adding the vintage and often whimsical F-Line. In its wake however, the value of historic streetcars is finally beginning to be realized by planners across the planet. Can Jacksonville learn from San Francisco's experience?

About the F Market & Wharves

The F Market & Wharves line is one of several light rail lines in San Francisco, California. Unlike the other lines, the F line is operated as a heritage streetcar service, using exclusively historic equipment both from San Francisco's retired fleet as well as from cities around the world. While the F line is operated by the San Francisco Municipal Railway (Muni), its operation is supported by Market Street Railway, a nonprofit organization of streetcar enthusiasts which raises funds and helps to restore vintage streetcars.

Despite its heritage status, the F Market & Wharves line is an integral part of Muni's intermodal urban transport network, operating at frequent intervals for 20 hours a day, seven days a week. It carries local commuters and tourists alike, linking residential, business and leisure oriented areas of the city. Unlike the San Francisco cable car system, standard Muni fares are levied.


Previous F-Line

In 1915, the San Francisco Municipal Railway started the F-Stockton route, which ran from Laguna (Later Scott) and Chestnut Streets in the Marina down Stockton Street to 4th and Market Streets near Union Square, later extended to the Southern Pacific Depot (currently the Caltrain Depot) in 1947. The streetcar line was discontinued in 1951 and was replaced by the 30-Stockton route, which still runs today.

The F-line designation was therefore available for use by the current line, although that service is over a completely different route to the F-line of 1915 to 1951.

Previous lines on Market Street

Market Street is a major transit artery for the city of San Francisco, and has carried in turn horse-drawn streetcars, cable cars and electric streetcars. In the 1970s construction began on the Market Street Subway, which would carry BART's trains on its lower level. The streetcar lines that previously ran on the surface of Market Street were diverted into the upper level of this tunnel. This diversion, together with the provision of new light rail cars, resulted in today's Muni Metro system.

The diversion of the Market Street streetcar lines into tunnel, and the replacement of the existing streetcars with new light rail cars, was completed by November 1982. However the street trackage on Market Street was retained, and many of the old streetcars were still in store.

Historic Trolley Festivals

In 1982, San Francisco's cable car lines had to be shut down for two years to allow for a major rebuild. To provide an alternative tourist attraction during this period, the San Francisco Historic Trolley Festivals began in 1983. These summertime operations of vintage streetcars on Market Street were a joint project of the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and Muni.

The trolley festival route went from the Transbay Terminal at First and Mission Streets to Market, then up the retained Market Street tracks to Duboce Avenue. From there, it followed a 'temporary' streetcar detour built in the 1970s to bypass subway construction under Market: Duboce, Church Street, and 17th Street to Castro.

F-Market Line

The Trolley Festival proved so successful that it was repeated every year until 1987. In that year, preparation began for the introduction of a permanent F line. After that year’s festival finished, Muni replaced the old Market Street tracks with new ones, restoring tracks to upper Market Street and recreating a line to Castro. Different types of vintage streetcars were evaluated to provide the backbone of the F-line fleet, resulting in the decision to use the PCC car, with its San Francisco transit heritage. Fourteen such cars were acquired second-hand from Philadelphia, to add to three of Muni’s own retired double-ended PCCs.

On September 1, 1995, the F line opened with a parade of PCC cars, painted to represent some of the two dozen North American cities that this type of streetcar once served. Ridership exceeded expectation, and the need for extra cars resulted in the acquisition of ten Peter Witt style cars just being retired in the city of Milan, Italy. These cars were built in the 1920s to a design once common in North American cities, and their sister cars are still widely used in Milan.

Extension on the Embarcadero

The Embarcadero is the eastern waterfront roadway of San Francisco, along San Francisco Bay. At one time busy with port and ferry related traffic, it fell into decline as freight transferred to the container terminals of Oakland and the Bay Bridge replaced the ferries. In the 1960s the elevated Embarcadero Freeway was built above, dividing the city from the bay, but this was condemned and demolished after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.

With the increasing development of the waterfront for leisure and tourist activities, and the existence of Fisherman's Wharf and Pier 39 at its northern end, it was decided to rebuild the Embarcadero as a tree-lined boulevard complete with a streetcar reservation. The section of this north of Market Street was to be served by an extension of the F line. Tracks were extended on the northern end of Market to connect with the Embarcadero tracks. In March 2000, service on the F line began along the new extension to Fisherman's Wharf.

What's Next?

Today, Muni is making preparations to make the long-proposed E-Embarcadero line a reality, from Caltrain to the Wharf, sharing track with the F-line to the north and the Muni Metro south of Folsom Street. There is strong community support, led in part by Market Street Railway, to extend this line west from the Wharf to Fort Mason, a big center for nonprofit organizations and events. From there, there is talk of further extending the line to serve the Presidio parkland and community. Market Street Railway has helped to acquire dozens of restorable streetcars for these future extensions.

It’s all due to the huge success of the F-line and the Trolley Festivals that sparked the historic streetcar movement in San Francisco. It’s a history that does the City proud.

Fisherman’s Wharf is easily the Bay Area's biggest tourist destination and serves as a real engine to the city's economy no matter what the economy in general is doing. Tourists aside however, the Wharf developed as an organic use of the waterfront, a vibrant commercial community, much like Jacksonville's historic downtown.  Until the late 1960s, when people referred to ‘the Wharf’ it was exactly that: a boat harbor next to Pier 45 where the city's fishing fleet docked.  In San Francisco's case, the fishing industry was mostly Italian immigrant families who left a very serious Italian legacy in the north.   But "The Wharf" was the docks and the string of mostly Italian restaurants surrounding the harbor.

However, in 1957, when Muni (One of the city's transit systems) reconfigured its cable car service, it created a new ‘Powell-Hyde’ line that directly linked the city’s retail and hotel district to Aquatic Park. Tourists climbed on board the Hyde cars for fun, but found themselves in a pretty industrial area and a dirt parking lot.  It didn't take long for developers to notice this.

Developers like William Matson Roth and Leonard Martin.  They went in, bought out the doughty old industrial complexes and transformed them into places like Ghirardelli Square and The Cannery. ‘Fisherman’s Wharf’ expanded:  Suddenly it wasn't just the docks and the restaurants.  By the end of the 70s, it was everything from Ghirardelli in the west to Pier 39 in the east.

The rest of the area depended on cars, and when the streetcars declined, so did new development.

That is until the F-line extended to the Wharf in 2000.  Visitor travel patterns changed radically

The F-line was such a huge hit that it actually carries more traffic than the two old cable car lines combined (The Powell-Mason and Powell-Hyde Lines). While some of the traffic definitely comes from people who would otherwise be riding the cable cars (which cost $5 and generally have much longer turntable lines), most F-liners have been shown to be people that would have been using autos or cabs. The most noticeable effect is that the F Line--by making it easier to access the wharves--has cut down on the growth of auto traffic and at the same time made coming to the area even easier and less expensive.  The uptick in business to establishments served by the F line has not gone unnoticed by developers and merchants in the areas which are not connected by the vintage trolley cars..

The effect of the F line on business has actually been startling, and chamber of commerce types began seeing an undeniable trend in visitor comments, and actual retail sales.  Despite all the other ways of reaching the Wharf (bus, car, cablecar, cab, walking and biking) the sites and business that were visible from the F Line route witnessed an explosion in sales and growth.  But in the rest of the area, especially the attractions in the western part of the Wharf have seen static and even declining visitation since the F-line opened.

Common business sense has led to a demand that the vintage trolley lines be extended.

Check out the Plans for an extension of the service:

graphic courtesy

On busy Market Street in downtown San Francisco, people avoid nearly empty buses but pack restored streetcars.  Across the nation - in cities such as Memphis, Little Rock and New Orleans - plans are under way to restore or extend downtown streetcar lines, which are popular with tourist and residents.

As many as a half-dozen modern or vintage trolley lines might soon join the nearly 30 such systems operating in U.S. cities.  

"Streetcars are making a comeback because cities across America are recognizing that they can restore economic development downtown - giving citizens the choice to move between home, shopping and entertainment without ever looking for a parking space," said Peter Rogoff, administrator of the Federal Transit Administration. "These streetcar projects will not only create construction jobs now, they will aid our recovery by creating communities with the potential to be more prosperous and less congested."

Even the FTA believes in the economic development power of the streetcar.  San Francisco's successful F-Line trolley is an example of what can happen with mass transit when creativity enters the picture.  

San Francisco's streetcar line is an integral part of the Bay Area's transit system.  Nathaniel Ford, executive director of San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, said daily ridership peaks at 24,000 during the summer tourist season but added that the line also gets heavy use by daily commuters connecting to light rail and the city's subway system.

He said streetcars do more for economic development than buses. "Rail projects are very expensive, but tend to be permanent.  And you get the economic development around stops that you normally don't see with bus operations."

Despite the obvious differences, there are several elements that Jacksonville has in common with the Fisherman's Wharf area of San Francisco.  Historically, the economic activity was based on maritime industries, around which a vibrant area developed.  They also both experienced exponential growth once their retail/hotel centers were connected with their maritime districts, and the two areas were served by fixed mass transit and thrived until the 60s and 70s, then began declining.

Building Jacksonville into a sustainable community and creating jobs with reliable mass transit is a realistic goal and opportunity for our city.  All we need to do is embrace creativity.

Article by Ennis Davis and Stephen Dare

Photos by Daniel Herbin